I’m currently staying at my parents’ house for the holidays, and last night, my sister, our childhood best friend, and I watched videotapes from our Catholic school’s Christmas pageants. As we watched in my parents’ basement, I realized we were surrounded by relics of the past, including family photo albums, DVD box sets of Friends, and my once-prized CD collection.
In every person of a certain age’s music history, there are two important milestones: the first CD you owned, and the first CD you owned with the notorious “Parental Advisory” label slapped on its cover. The existence of the aforementioned label is thanks in no small part to Purple Rain.
In 1984, then-Senator Al Gore’s then-wife Tipper bought a copy of Purple Rain for her daughter, Karenna. She later heard the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” a song which discusses several adult themes.
I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how'd you like to waste some time,
and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
Appalled by the lyrics, Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center with other prominent women in Washington, known as the “Washington Wives.” This group, along with several politicians, lobbied the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the 1980s to have a music rating system. This system was meant to echo the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s rating system that determined what films were appropriate for children to watch.
Out of that lobbying came the “Filthy Fifteen” in 1985: a list of 15 songs the group deemed to be the most inappropriate. It was made up of a who’s who of ‘80s musicians, including Madonna, Def Leppard, Cyndi Lauper, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Mötley Crüe. Topping the list was, of course, Prince’s “Darling Nikki.”
The Parents Music Resource Center’s lasting legacy, though, is the “Parental Advisory” label that is now featured on albums deemed inappropriate for younger listeners. This label made its debut in 1990, when 2 Live Crew’s aptly-named Banned in the U.S.A. became the first album to have it printed on its cover.
Though the label was meant to prevent underage ears from hearing inappropriate content, it ended up having a similar effect to the MPAA’s rating system, and the youth of America began doing everything they could to get their hands (and ears) on the albums.
If you didn’t have cool parents, these albums were often obtained through a sneaky (and sometimes illegal) strategy. As an almost-11-year-old Catholic school girl with morals, I certainly wasn’t going to shoplift at Tower Records or Sam Goody, so I would have to find a more creative way to achieve that second music milestone.
On February 16, 1999, my family was eating dinner at the now-closed Sign of the Whale restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. A local radio station was hosting an event at the restaurant and happened to be giving away CDs. After my little sister got a copy of Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want, the pickings were slim, and the radio DJ could see my disappointment as I shuffled through jewel cases of artists I didn’t recognize. She then pulled out of her bag a wrapped copy of Blink-182’s Enema of the State and asked me to check with my parents to see if it was okay for me to have this CD. I went back to my parents to ask, conveniently leaving out the fact that the CD had a “Parental Advisory” label on its case. They okayed it, and that night, a week away from turning 11, some new words entered my lexicon, for better or for worse. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t learn what all the lyrics alluded to until I was in high school. I had received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Church of Rock and Roll.
The irony in Prince’s album inspiring a crusade for music censorship is that he ended up censoring his own music later on in his career. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s, he refused to swear in his music and even stopped performing songs such as “Darling Nikki,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Erotic City,” the B-side to Purple Rain’s iconic opener “Let’s Go Crazy.” He later reversed some of these decisions and began to re-incorporate some of the songs back into his live sets.
I was fortunate enough to see Prince perform “Darling Nikki” at an after-party show a month before he died. My friend and I waited several hours with hundreds of people at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall to get into the cash-only show. At 2 AM, we were finally in the midst of the Purple One, standing about 15 feet away from his stage. At 5’2” (but at least four inches taller in his signature platform heels), he commanded the crowd and had us dancing up a storm.
I would experience a very different kind of storm two years later, on the last day of my Purple Rain pilgrimage to Minneapolis. Earlier that day, I had toured Paisley Park, which served as Prince’s home, offices, performance space, and recording studios. Later, I unfortunately didn’t get to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka in the most traditional way. Instead, just as I was about to join my friends in the water at a public beach, a hailstorm came out of nowhere and I was attacked by Lake Minnetonka in a painful form of condensation. Sometimes it snows in April, and sometimes it hails bruise-inducing stones in May.
Earlier today, I decided to dig through my old CDs while finishing this piece. As I flipped through stacks of cases, hearing that familiar clack that you don’t often hear anymore, I found several of my “Parental Advisory”-labeled CDs. I thought about how many of them were tied to a specific point in my personal history, and how much more relatable some of the adult lyrics grew as I got older.
Much like how I probably got that copy of Enema of the State too early in life, my actual Confirmation, which solidified my role as an adult in the Catholic Church, took place when I was too young to decide whether I wanted to remain in that world. In a way, that’s how life works. We often experience fragments of it when we’re too young to understand, and then we slowly get through it by finding the rest of the puzzle pieces to form the picture.